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PG&E 2007 Report: Risk of Pipeline Failure 'Unacceptably High'

Firefighters sift through rubble at a burned home that was destroyed by a massive explosion and fire Sept. 10, 2010 in San Bruno
Firefighters sift through rubble at a burned home that was destroyed by a massive explosion and fire Sept. 10, 2010 in San Bruno
The utility's own risk assessment of gas main just north of section that exploded called for repairs--in 2013

Updated at 6:18 p.m.

As early as 2007, Pacific Gas & Electric Company officials considered a portion of the gas main that ruptured and triggered the deadly San Bruno blaze on Thursday to be at "unacceptably" high risk for failure, according to documents obtained by The Bay Citizen.

The documents raise new questions about the extent of PG&E's responsibility for the biggest disaster in the utility's 105-year history in California that left 6 dead and 37 homes burned to the ground in the Crestmoor neighborhood.

The utility company had planned to repair by 2013 a 7,481-foot long section of pipe, which it deemed—based on internal risk assessments made in 2007 — one of PG&E's "top 100 highest risk line sections."

The break was just 2.8 miles south of the section of the pipe that was deemed to be high risk, according to the California Public Utilities Commission and PG&E officials.

Ed Salas, senior vice president of engineering and operations at PG&E, said he could not comment on the condition of the pipe that ruptured, citing the ongoing probe by the National Transportation Safety Board. He characterized the high-risk section as "physically well north of the section that failed."

"We had no way to anticipate what occurred here," said Salas. "We would never leave a hazardous situation in place if one exists."

But residents living near the line have long complained of gas leaks. And experts said that even if the 7,481-foot-long stretch slated for repair did not include the location of the rupture, there has been ample evidence that the pipe -- a 30-inch high-pressure steel line that carries gas from the South Bay to near San Francisco -- is showing its age.

"It's kind of startling evidence," said Kofi Inkabi, a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. "But it's not surprising."

Inkabi said that the pipes usually have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, and sections of pipeline are typically manufactured at the same steel factory and subjected to the same standards of operation and maintenance.

"These pipes are series systems with high correlation," Inkabi said. "If one section of the pipe was degrading to the point where they're saying there's a high likelihood, high consequence of concern, I wouldn't be surprised if other sections of that pipeline were also of concern."

In a 2009 report outlining a proposal to replace the section of Line 132 at a cost of $5 million, PG&E officials wrote: "If the replacement of this pipe does not occur, risks associated with this segment will not be reduced. Coupled with the consequences of failure of this section of pipeline, the likelihood of a failure makes the risk of a failure at this location unacceptably high."

PG&E filed the 2009 report, called a capital project summary, to the California Public Utilities Commission in making its case for rate hikes in 2011. Testimony submitted by PG&E also outlined a number of other high-priority expenditures that the utility had been planning to make, from building expanded storage capacity to upgrading its SmartMeter data program. The CPUC periodically makes changes to the consumer rate structure based, in part, on the utility's costs.

The expenditures for the future safety upgrades were approved during the settlement, said Michael P. Florio, the senior attorney for The Utility Reform Network, a utility consumer advocacy group that was involved in a 2009 settlement with PG&E over its proposed rate hike. After the Thursday explosion, Florio revisited the spending requests submitted by PG&E last year.

"When we finally figured out I said, 'Oh my god, this is it.' I was just sick," Florio said. "Thank god we approved the spending, but we didn't approve it soon enough. I about lost it when I realized that there it was in the queue for 2013 and 2014, and it just didn't get done in time."

PG&E's Salas said that the highest risks in the system take precedence for getting repaired. He said the lists of high-risk portions are made looking a few years down the road. Salas said that PG&E regularly monitored Line 132, although he declined to say how.

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